When Seth Flaxman began talking to Starbucks last summer about his organization, Democracy Works, and its efforts to increase voting numbers, he was thinking big.
Founded in 2010 by Flaxman and Harvard Kennedy School of Government classmate Kathryn Peters, Democracy Works had served 200,000 American voters in 2012 through TurboVote, a service that makes registering to vote fast and secure from computers and mobile devices, and helps to modernize this process for the way we live today. With the 2014 midterms, when the percentage of ballots cast fell to its lowest level since World War II, TurboVote hit the 300,000 mark.
After a series of phone conversations with company officials that began in August 2015, Flaxman came to Starbucks headquarters in December to talk with chairman and ceo Howard Schultz and other leaders about what he and his team considered a wildly ambitious goal: TurboVote would help lift voter participation to 75 percent, at a date to be determined.
The response from Starbucks? We’re in. But let’s make that 80 percent, and let’s get there by 2020.
For perspective, that 5 percent increase represents nearly 11 million out of 219 million eligible U.S. voters. The nation hasn’t seen 80 percent voter engagement since the 1880s.
“It is unrealistically ambitious and exactly the way Americans need to rethink our democracy right now,” said Flaxman. “I see what we’re doing as historic.”
A Better Voter Experience
Called the “TurboVote Challenge,” the initiative brings together innovative and influential companies that will work to get out the vote in record numbers. Already on board are Airbnb, Arizona State University, Fusion, Lyft, Mic, Spotify, Target, theSkimm, Univision, Westfield Corporation, WeWork and The Video Game Voters Network.
“It does not matter if you are a Republican, a Democrat or an Independent,” said Howard Schultz. “Our intention is nonpartisan, and it is simple: by helping to increase voter registration and participation, we believe more people will have an opportunity to make their voices count.”
Starbucks has a history of championing efforts to encourage civic engagement. Starbucks recently joined Marriott International, the Boys & Girls Club of America and the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in supporting the Bipartisan Policy Center’s initiative to improve the voter experience for all Americans. Embarking on a multi-year effort to strengthen our democracy, Starbucks has also made TurboVote accessible to all partners in the U.S. For partners who need their registration or absentee ballot sent to them, the company will cover the cost of postage. The TurboVote Challenge is the next step in Starbucks efforts to help more eligible voters engage.
A Coalition to Reach All Americans
Flaxman said his meeting earlier this year with Schultz helped him set a higher bar for voter engagement and hone a vision of how more ambitious goals can be achieved.
“I think he comes from a very similar place from where we wanted to start this thing,” Flaxman said. “I think it’s very important to do this as a civic project, not a political project. I’m coming at this thinking an 80 percent turnout isn’t about wanting anyone in particular to win. It’s about rebooting our democracy. We need to come together in a representative way and have mass participation to chart what the future of our democracy is going to look like.”
The means to achieve the ambitious 80 percent target exists, Flaxman added. TurboVote fulfills the vision he and Democracy Works COO Kathryn Peters developed in 2010 – an uncomplicated, widely accessible system that makes it easier to register, vote and stay informed. With Starbucks and other companies signing on to the effort, a way to reach to all potential American voters is taking shape.
“Putting this coalition together provides proof that mass voter participation is a value of the country,” Flaxman said. “This is a doable thing. It’s not crazy. There’s not an American who doesn’t interact with some institution, be it corporate, nonprofit or educational.”
The broad spectrum of companies signing on to the TurboVote Challenge will demonstrate their commitment to the effort by promoting voter registration and awareness among employees, customers and stakeholders; sponsoring awareness campaigns to engage with the voting public; and encouraging civic discussions and volunteer projects.